“The south end of Buncombe County is full of people, and they are running one ambulance right now. When that one ambulance goes away — out of any fire district — somebody has to respond. We are a very vital resource in Buncombe County. We want to be used.”
That was the sentiment expressed at the Nov. 21 Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meeting by Kermit Tolley, owner of Medical Emergency Ambulance Inc., as he sought a franchise from the county.
The Arden-based company, also called Medic, has been providing emergency transport and paramedic services since 1989. “Franchise” in this case means a permit issued by the county for the operation of a commercial ambulance service.
Tolley appeared at the meeting as the first step in receiving a franchise. The board unanimously approved granting Medic a nonexclusive emergency transportation franchise in unincorporated areas of Buncombe County, but that approval is contingent upon an evaluation of Medic by a third-party company, Management Solutions for Emergency Services in Denver, N.C.
Under Buncombe County’s Code of Ordinances, the county manager’s office, along with the emergency services director and legal department, must evaluate each potential emergency services provider before recommending that the board grant or deny the franchise. That process includes a hearing, such as was conducted on Medic on Nov. 21, then “within 30 days after the hearing, the county shall cause such investigation as it may deem necessary to be made of the applicant and his proposed operations.”
Commissioners generally agreed that the county would benefit from having more ambulances available to respond to calls. “My main objective in moving forward with Medic is that there’s a need in Buncombe County for help and y’all are qualified to provide that help,” Commissioner Joe Belcher said to Tolley. “We want to look at the simplest way to be able to do that so when someone dials 911, we want as many people as possible showing up to help those folks.”
Medic currently has contracts with several organizations, including the Department of Veterans Affairs, Park Ridge Hospital, Care Partners Hospice, Asheville Saints Youth Football, the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts, and the N.C. Forest Service. The company has provided emergency services to Buncombe County in the past, and this was not the first time Tolley has appeared before the board to ask for a franchise. One term that commissioners mentioned more than once was “turf wars,” alluding to tension among some fire and emergency departments about Medic, a for-profit provider, cutting into their territory.
Tolley said he wants to work alongside fire departments. “We’re not trying to take anything from anybody. We just want to be another resource,” he said. “That person that calls 911 has the right to have the closest ambulance sent to him. If it’s mine, that’s great. If it’s a fire department, that’s great. If it’s Buncombe County, that’s great. The closest one and the most qualified is who needs to be sent to that call.”
A rift appeared among the commissioners through the course of the discussion, as some favored approving Tolley’s request on the spot, while others argued for following the process as set in the ordinance. County attorney Michael Frue said he had heard the third-party company had charged another entity $10,000 to do an evaluation, and Commissioner Mike Fryar objected to the county having to pay that.
“We’ve seen a whole lot tonight. We’ve seen what [Tolley] has as far as the service, we’ve seen how long he’s been around, we see he works for federal agencies,” Fryar said. “I would like to see if we can resolve this. … I don’t see us having to spend $10,000.”
Commissioner Robert Pressley wondered if it might be possible to have at least a couple of Medic’s ambulances inspected to get them out on the roads for the holidays, when emergency needs increase.
Frue explained that the third-party company would provide an objective evaluation of not only Tolley’s operation but the county’s overall system for emergency response. “They would look at overlay maps and look at response areas and look at the current county plan to provide emergency transportation services and make sure this is a good fit, it complements it,” he said.
County Manager Mandy Stone said it’s crucial that the county do its due diligence. “I would trust the Tolleys with any member of my family on any given day, but my job is still to say that there’s processes we have to follow to comply with the ordinance,” she said.
Such commitment to making sure everything is on the up-and-up was applauded by Commissioner Ellen Frost, who alluded to an ongoing federal investigation into the dealings of former County Manager Wanda Greene. “Considering the current climate of our county, I’m very happy with this oversight and following the process,” she said.
Frue said the review of Medic’s operation and the county’s emergency transportation services system could come back from the third-party provider in January, after which the board could make a final decision on granting the franchise to Medic.
Greenway easement for Ferry Road
The Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a greenway easement to the city of Asheville across a 137-acre parcel on Brevard Road along the French Broad River. The county purchased the land, known as the Ferry Road property, in 2015 in hopes of attracting a national brewery to the site. Oregon-based Deschutes Brewery eventually decided to locate its new operation in Roanoke, Va., leading commissioners to put the property back on the market. The county is now asking the city of Asheville to rezone the parcel from industrial to multifamily high-density residential, which it feels is more likely to attract a buyer. A proposal to that effect was slated to come before Asheville City Council on Nov. 28.
Frue told the county commissioners on Nov. 21 that defining the exact location of the greenway easement could help a potential buyer better draw up plans for development. “We have a developer who’s nibbling at this property, and we’ve discussed that, and we’re working on getting a contract for this property, the terms of which we can’t really disclose quite yet,” he said. “But for any developer to use this property for residential purposes, they need to know where the easement will be.”
The permanent easement allows for a 15-foot-wide greenway to be built at some point in the future.